Cetacean gestation a rare success story
Moira Brown has spent 25 years of her life trying to save the whales.
It may be starting to pay off.
The endangered North Atlantic right whales she studies number just 400 or so worldwide.
But the Canadian biologist confirmed this week that researchers recorded 39 births this year, the highest annual number since they started documenting the population in 1980.
"This year was phenomenal," said the senior scientist with the New England Aquarium in Boston. The aquarium is the lead body behind three decades of research.
The Montreal native is also affiliated with the Canadian Whale Institute in Wilsons Beach, N.B.
"There were 39 births recorded down on the only known calving ground along the southeast coast of Florida, and so far this year, we’ve documented . . . 20 of the mothers up here in the Bay of Fundy in the last two months or so and 19 of the calves. We’ve lost a couple of the calves, and it’s unfortunate, but with any mammal, it’s not uncommon to lose a couple of newborns."
Still, "the signs are very encouraging," she said, especially since scientists recorded just one birth for the species in 2001.
"That was a depressing year. But the very next year, there were 31 calves born and really through (this decade), we’ve averaged over 20 calves per year. So for some reason, environmental conditions are much more suitable for right whales."
Ms. Brown said an abundance of plankton in the Bay of Fundy is helping the mammals stay well-fed, and the healthier the individual whales, the more likely they are to procreate. Biologists like Ms. Brown have also made strides reducing other threats to the creatures, which were nearly hunted to extinction as far back as 1750. Ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear have also hampered the species’ struggle to survive. About 75 per cent of the whales bear the scars of run-ins with gear.
But thanks to the efforts of Ms. Brown and others, international shipping lanes were moved in the Bay of Fundy in 2003, apparently reducing the mortality rate for the mammals, which congregate in this area off Nova Scotia from June to December. The highest concentrations are from August to October.
Scientists have made progress in educating fishermen, especially in the United States, where the whales are most likely to face threats from gear, Ms. Brown said.
"Up here in Canada, most of the fishing gear is not in the water when the high concentrations of whales are here. What we have been working on is awareness with the fishermen because there is an overlap from the start of the lobster fishery in November and some lingering right whales.
"We’re working (on) awareness, various groups are trying to do some surveys late in the fall so the fishermen know . . . the whales are still around."
Keeping them around will take vigilance and more study, said Ms. Brown, who was first drawn to the research because of the mystery surrounding the mammoth mammals.
Over the years, she has developed affection for the creatures, whose females average 17 to 18 metres in length and weigh 50 to 70 tonnes.
No one’s sure about the lifespan of the whales, but Ms. Brown said researchers know of one that lived to be at least 70.
After years of photographing the small population, researchers can easily identify the whales by their markings or their scars.
Seeing those scars or watching whales suffer amid the mesh of fishing nets is a painful sight for their human protectors.
"You want to help that whale as an individual," she said.
And since humans have decimated the population, they have a responsibility to rescue it, Ms. Brown said.
"Now we can use the best of our technology to help them recover."